Bhutan: the land of Gross National Happiness

While I travelled to Bhutan about a year ago, the memory is still fresh in mind to be able to write this blog. While, talking about Malaysia, I had concentrated on the feelings/emotions that the place had inspired in me, for this post, I will be taking a more travel-blogger approach. I must warn before hand though that this post in no ways does justice to those beautiful cities.

Bhutan was extremely important for me because it was my first trip out of the country. even though my Professor very sweetly pointed out, it was still drivable from New Delhi. The charm of an international travel was slightly dimmed when I didn’t need a visa or passport to enter the country, being an Indian citizen. Apparently carrying one’s voter ID is enough! however, not one to be outdone, I carried my passport and insisted they put a stamp on it, and then did an internal dance at having the first stamp on my passport.

The trip to this country was amazing in many different ways. The flight itself, was mesmerizing, across the Himalayan range, flying to Kathmandu one gets to the see the glorious peaks of Annapurna, Kanchenjunga and of course, Everest. Alas, while flying to Bhutan, I was unable to see Everest due to the cloud cover, but fulfilled this wish on the return journey. What was really nice of the staff of Druk Air was that they allocated window seats on the side the peaks would be visible without asking passengers.

Upon arrival in Paro, I was mesmerized, the vista visible upon de-boarding the flight and looking around the mountain range surrounding the valley, was beautiful. One could easily spend hours there just taking it all in. Also, coming directly from Delhi, the difference in the two cities was immediate, in terms of temperatures, crispness and cleanliness of the air and of course, to an extent thinness. located at 8,000 feet above sea level, it is a perfect place to try to de-clog your lungs and try out some fresh air for a change.

The next pleasant surprise i received was when i left the airport. As I was on an official visit, upon seeing a woman holding up a name plague for me, I assumed she was a client representative. However, upon reaching the car I noticed there was no driver. In a spot, of how to solve this confusion, I asked her politely if it was okay to sit up front, that’s when I realised, she was the car driver who had been sent by my Colleagues. I internally chided myself for falling into the trap and assuming things based on her appearance and gender, and silently reminded myself of the saying “Never judge a book by its cover” I would on occasion also add, ” Never judge a book by its title”. I also appreciated the country for this nice change from India, where 99.9% of the cab drivers are men.

The drive to Thimphu itself was enchanting, even made better by the four-wheel drive MUV. Most of the cars in the area are MUVs and SUVs, which allow navigation on the concrete roads as well as in the rougher terrains when you go up hill. While initially we were booked in the Druk Hotel, we moved to the Hotel Pedling, a little walking distance away, due to budgetary constraints. While obviously, being a five-star hotel, the service at Druk would have been a class apart, that at Hotel Pedling was extremely satisfying with a very cooperative and helpful staff.

Our work in this country, primarily consisted of meetings with government departments and consultations with the local community.  This allowed us entry into the Dzongs, which housed the key government departments as well as the monasteries in the district, which in turn allowed us some time to explore these beautiful campuses in relative peace and quiet, without the hustle-bustle of peak tourist season.

The buildings in these Dzongs, as well as across the cities, were of a traditional nature, with the lower levels being made of compressed mud and the upper stories made of wood. most of the buildings were in earthy tones of reds, browns and yellows in the upper stories, while the mud sections were white. Some of the houses also decorated their walls with simplistic traditional designs of clouds, animals and the symbols of good luck and prosperity. These paints, apparently made from flower extract had a beautiful shine to them, and did not appear to fade with age. the Dzongs also had paintings of the wheels of life and the different forms of Buddha in the traditional art form of Thangkas.

Apart from this, we also managed to explore some of the delicacies in the cities, including the national dish of Ema Datsi. While in the country we managed to get a taste of Ema Datsi (a dish comprising of Cheese and Chilli), Kewa Datsi (a dish with potatoes, cheese and Chilli), Mushroom and Pork Datsi, red rice and chicken stew. Apart from this, we also tried out the local tobacco substitute dried blocks of cheese (yak and cow). However, this unfortunately was not something my palate enjoyed. The dried cheese was available along the roads, hung from strings, much like garlic in other places, in the shape of cuboid, about an inch thick and 2 inches long. However, half of these cuboid, would have to be kept in the mouth to soften them for over 2 hours before any attempt to chew or bite was possible, even then it was with great difficulty that any small fragments would be broken apart and then would taste of dried milk. While an essential preservation technique for a country that faces harsh winters and resource scarcity, this is indeed an acquired taste.

Another wonderful experience was the lunch at the oldest bakery in the city, the Swiss Bakery. This place was reportedly established by a Swiss couple who had settled in Bhutan, and then sold of the property to a Bhutanese family who had been employed there. According to the reviews online, this bakery used to be the most popular place for the younger generation, over time, with newer venues coming out it has lost its charm and appeal. While the food was nothing extraordinary, it was well made and felt like it was made with love. Yes the menu was restricted, and stuck to the basics that any good bakery should have, but I would strongly recommend it to anyone in the city on the premise that you get good pastries and experience a part of the history of the city as well. Of course the food journey in this beautiful place would have been incomplete without some golden apples, pork momos, local beer (Red Panda and Druk) and koka. There is something trully amazing about eating Koka (local maggi) and iced tea surrounded the mountains and with fresh air! One recommendation for any who visit these cities, is to take a stroll through the streets at night, after 9:30-10:00 pm. The roads at this time are a lot more disserted and quiet, and thus offer a very different perspective of the city, but this is also the time when a number of vendors and hawkers come out with carriers full of rice and stew and other simple foods, and the younger generations hang about relaxing.

Apart from enjoying the delicacies in the country, we also managed to do some other touristy stuff, such as visiting the local crafts bazaar in Thimphu, the  only place for souvenirs, visited a local temple, the still under construction Buddha monument and of course the zoo. While at the crafts bazaar, it was a little disheartening to see most of the products bearing the made in china and India tags, and the prices were a little on the higher side. I did manage to pick up souvenirs for all my friends, in the form of t-shirts, key chains, fridge magnets and a wooden wall hanging for my house. Another good place is the chinese market, from where one can pick up some good crockery, with oriental designs, of course, made in china really cheap.  Even though the tea cups I picked up were made in China, I don’t regret them, as they were traditional designs and  with the lids, as is the norm in the country, but extremely difficult to find in Delhi. Having said this, it should be kept in mind, that the cities have a number of options for anyone looking for stuff to take back home, depending upon the range and the type of souvenir required. The visit to the zoo was another nice experience as this allowed us to see the national animal, the Takin as well as some unique animals of the Himalayan range.

I unfortunately wasnt able to pick up alot of the Dzongkha language, and the three phrases I did pick up included:

  1. kuzoo zangpo la: Greetings
  2. Tashi Delek: Welcome
  3. Kaadinchey la: Thank you
  4. la: sir/madam (respect) or simple ya

One of the best things I liked about this country was the concept of Gross National Happiness, which encompasses not just the economic performance of a country, but also the performance in terms of wellness; economic, physical, social, environmental, political, and mental. This parameter was introduced essentially as a means of protecting the culture, integrity of the people, and the ecology and environment bestowed on the country. While no explicit policies and rules and regulations, a number of provisions have been put in place to ensure that the principles are upheld. Some of these provisions included controlling the number of visas awarded yearly, controlling the entry into the Dzongs, requirement of wearing the official formal outfit of the country while visiting the Dzongs, ban on cigarettes (though they are smuggled in quiet easily), control on the architecture of the buildings constructed including the design and paint of the outer structures allowed, a study and analysis of any new projects introduced along the parameters of GNH as well as support for the local population from the government in terms of health and educational expenses and personal loans. While it remains to be examined as to how effective these measures are in achieving the goals identified, the country and its government deserves an appreciation for at least an attempt at ensuring this.

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5 thoughts on “Bhutan: the land of Gross National Happiness

    1. Hi, i just recently finished reading a book set in Bhutan and thought would recommend it to you. The book is called Escapades by Dorji Dhratyul. Its based in Bhutan and while is not a great reading experience in terms of plot development and overall writing it is a must read for all those interested in learning about this country. I would definitely recommend it.

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